“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” ― Elbert Hubbard
A few months ago, my mates and I decided to do a ka mini-road trip to Sagana to officially bid farewell to one of us who was soon leaving the bachelors club and has chosen to wear what some enemies of progress call the Suffe-Ring (pun intended). It was meant to be a polite getaway, nothing out of the ordinary. Our driver for the day was one of the adrenaline oozing Subaru-hailing gentlemen who like to overtake anything and everything that passes them on the road. So began our journey of risk for about two hours – one way.
We got to Sagana safely and enrolled for some fun activities in the rapids. One of the nerve-racking activities we signed up for was jumping off a cliff and down into the base of a waterfall. Now, you think that jumping off a cliff is easy until you get up there and see the roaring waters below. The expectation was that the Subaru guy, given his extensive risk-taking tendencies on the road, would be the first to jump off followed by our boy who was to marry in a few weeks then either of the remaining two of us. Because, I mean surely, what could be riskier than getting married, right?
Choosing someone to marry can become an overly complex process, so I hear. You can take the “maximizing” approach by listing pros and cons, multiplying them by their probabilities, and adding the results thereof. This kind of approach is based on expected utility. But in a world of uncertainty where probabilities are unknowable, the entire calculation may be built on quicksand.
Rules of thumb are more likely to lead to good marital choices, I’m made to understand. One such heuristic is the so called One Reason Decision Making, where one is urged on to ‘‘Find the most important reason and ignore the rest.” Such satisficing entails first setting a level of aspiration and then choosing the first person who meets it. A recommended third step, those who know say, is falling in love and acting on this inexplicable gut feeling there and then, generating your own version of a happily thereafter.
The purported risk of committing your life to someone aside, it goes without saying that every day we are constantly taking decisions based on our perceived risk exposure. Infact, one can argue that risk is necessary for some industries to survive. Asymmetry of information brings about uncertainty leading to risky environments. But let’s get back to the “you guy my guy” Subaru gentleman.
After indulging in all kinds of shenanigans, we all ended up leaving Sagana in one piece considerably late, cognizant that these were the 9pm curfew days. It was on this return trip that somehow, our Subaru friend’s ordinarily frowned upon “calculated risks” on the road seemed excusable in our collective complicit silence – no one wanted to spend the weekend behind bars and so we let him gleefully do what he had to, an evidently irresponsible concession on our part for fear of being guests of the state.
Homeostasis is a term borrowed from Biology that is described as the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. In simpler terms, how our bodies for instance manage many parts to ensure an equilibrium state where our bodies are functioning well. In the realm of risk, we have a theory known as Risk Homeostasis. This theory posits that people at any moment in time compare the amount of risk they perceive with their target level of risk and will adjust their behavior in an attempt to eliminate any discrepancies between the two.
Human beings must thus choose a level of riskiness in their decisions such that the net expected benefit of the behavior chosen is maximal. This net benefit depends on four utility factors. More risk will be taken when (1) the expected benefits of risky behavior alternatives are higher, (2) when their expected disadvantages (costs) are lower, (3) the expected benefits of cautious behavior alternatives are lower, and (4) their expected disadvantages greater.
The balance of these factors determines the level of risk that people are willing to take. This is their target risk, and this concept applies to all behavioral domains, such as food intake, drinking, smoking, love life, finance management and many other ethical dilemmas. For our Subaru guy, the conditions outlined in 1 to 4 were a match made in heaven and that is why we beat the curfew, the attendant risk notwithstanding.
To illustrate the concept of risk homeostasis in road safety, for instance, a new law was passed in Sweden. When Swedish road rules changed the default driving lane from left to right-hand traffic, from one day to the next in 1967, perceived levels of risk soared to uncommon heights and exceeded the target risk by far (see the reverse of Utility Factor 3 & 4 above).
Consequently, people became extremely cautious and the accident rates dropped significantly. After some time, road users became aware of this drop in numbers and felt less of a need for great caution. The result was that the accident rate went up again, to levels witnessed before the change-over from left to right.
The fact that humans always act in a manner so as to restore homeostasis poses an interesting catch-22 conundrum on how humans behave when faced with risk. While risk is universal, how we choose to act when faced with different risky situations is quite different. Given the risky situations of jumping off a cliff and driving at insane speeds to beat curfew, my Subaru guy followed the risk homeostasis rule of balancing between perceived and target risks. So do you and I in our day to day decision making. Safe to say, most accomplishments are made possible with a measure of calculated risk taken either willingly or we’re forced to take the risk by circumstance.
PS: Only two of us ended up jumping off the cliff and it was neither the Subaru guy nor the guy who was getting married in 9 days’ time – there is video evidence. The plan is to use it against them in the near future.